Made by Bioware and published by Interplay, the four separate titles in the Baldur's Gate computer game series make up one of the few computer games series that truly deserve to be described as 'epic'. The games follow the story of one young man discovering his destiny, in true Dungeons and Dragons style. However, while this basic synopsis sounds gruesomely clichéd, the story is in fact brilliantly crafted and even quite emotional at times. It is thought that if the dedicated player attempted every quest in all of the games, then it would take around 500 hours1 to complete. This is a fair amount of time. The games are also immensely popular and are responsible for the renaissance in 'pen and paper' D&D2 gaming in America.
The games are set in the most recognisable of the D&D campaign worlds, The Forgotten Realms, about 16 or so years after the 'the Time of Troubles' - when the gods were apparently banished from their celestial domains and are forced to roam the realms themselves. Practically all of the mechanics of the pen and paper version are included in the games3. The game is actually quite geeky, but it is perfectly playable without ever working out what a 'to hit modifier' is or worrying what a 'reaction adjustment' does.
The four titles are two stand-alone games and an add-on pack for each. Although one is a sequel, there is an almost complete degree of continuity between setting and characterisation. The graphics and interface are improved subtly rather than changed significantly, and additions merely accommodate more powerful spells, artefacts and abilities to complement the more powerful brand of character and beastie that appears. The story, too, is a direct continuation from the first title, with many of the more interesting non-player characters (NPCs) reappearing. The protagonist himself is allowed to be imported from the first game if the player has played it through beforehand. The titles are as follows: Baldur's Gate (and its add-on Tales Of The Sword Coast) and Baldur's Gate 2 - Shadows of Amn (and its respective add-on Throne of Bhaal).
The story covers a short but eventful time in the life of the player character, and is far too good to be spoiled by a poxy synopsis, deserving as it is to be played through with thoroughness. It starts slowly, which tends to put the more casual gamer off, but quickly builds into a very powerful story indeed. Something special was needed to create a fresh and stimulating story in what was essentially a fairly tired genre, in the standard, been-there-done-that Tolkienesque world of elves, dwarves and magic swords. Storylines had stagnated prior to the 1997 release of the original game, yet something truly new and different emerged, which had great writing and a deftly witty touch.
The game is set in the western corner of the Forgotten Realms, a world which had been painstakingly and lovingly maintained and developed over the course of 20 years prior to the game's release. Only a small section of the world is ever visited, no more than is necessary, but this allowed the developers to pull out all the stops to create a believable world that feels both inhabited and able to be manipulated. Of course, not everything one could do in real life can be done, but there is a fair amount of roleplaying to do, as well as copious amounts of combat.
The games are played from an isometric birds-eye view, in which a maximum of six player-controlled characters are controlled, via a series of clicks of the mouse. The gameplay is varied; at the core, one is wondering around a series of themed and detailed areas, (be they wilderness, town or - that roleplay mainstay - the dungeon) attempting to depopulate the enemies. These enemies get progressively tougher, ranging from fairly puny wolves and goblins to huge dragons and even earthly avatars of evil gods. Needless to say, there is a fairly formidable arsenal which one can use to perform this task, and the creative teams at work on these weapons have put a lot of imagination into making interesting and entertaining magical items. Of course, magic plays as large a part as thuggery, and a lot of fun comes in discovering the most ludicrously powerful death-dealing combination when trying to defeat a particularly ornery demon. However, there is much more to the game than senseless violence. There are puzzles and quests to be overcome, and of course the unfolding of the story is tremendously rewarding.
What makes this series so magical, however, is the deftness with which it is written. Very touching and tender in parts, and very, very droll in others, it is a true masterpiece. When games are finally given the recognition they deserve as pieces of entertainment art, Baldur's Gate, as well as Final Fantasy VII, will be held up as pinnacles of the roleplaying genre for these reasons.